WMHT’s ‘Lena: A Life in Folk’ goes deep into the life of Lena Spencer

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Saratoga represents many things to many people. To the late Lena Spencer and her then husband, it was the place to start their coffeehouse. A bustling college town in need of a gathering place. They were two creative minds who sought to be in the middle of a creative community.

On Phila Street, in a building that was all but abandoned, they found the home for Caffé Lena.

Through decades of trials, tribulations, evictions, losses and near bankruptcy, Lena forged her vision. Her passion and perseverance provided a destination for some of the largest names in recent music history, a place where folk music continues to thrive and is now known as the longest-running coffeehouse in the country. This iconic Spa City venue celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2020. Ahead of this milestone, WMHT Public Media (PBS) premiered “Lena: A Life in Folk” with a viewing at Skidmore College on Thursday, Sept. 19.

“I was drawn to Lena’s unbridled ambition,” states Lena: A Life in Folk producer, WMHT’s Nicole Van Slyke, “She was looking for something and she found it in a rundown building in downtown Saratoga. It was her destiny.”

Joe Alper: Bob Dylan, Suze Rotolo, Lena Spencer and Pasha the cat at Caffe Lena @ The Tang Teaching Museum
Bob Dylan, Suze Rotolo, Lena Spencer and Pasha the cat at Caffe Lena
Photo by Joe Alper

Through the years, Spencer hosted countless of legendary performers, including Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Ani DiFranco, Don McLean and more. The music venue earned such a reputation the Library of Congress named it “An American Treasure.”

Van Slyke invites nearly a dozen voices, including Spencer’s by means of recorded interviews, her songs and excerpts from her autobiography. Other speakers include family, friends, historians and associates from the caffé. Their words are accompanied by home movies, local news segments and several still photos that date as far back as Spencer’s young childhood.

“Lena: A Life in Folk” is a touching tribute to a woman who epitomized a creative life. Whose name was large enough in stature that when she died in 1989 the news reached the Los Angeles Times. In the same article, however, the last paragraph took note of her financial dire straits. That the epicenter of the folk music world was never a financial boon despite the names that played there and the history it owned.

Bernice Johnson, Cordell Reagon, and Lena Spencer, 1963
Photo by Joe Alper

The love and reverence from those she left behind is clear. As members of a close family would be, speakers were honest in remembering Spencer. From those who smiled while recalling how self-aware she was of her place in the global sphere of the folk music world, to the same voices who handled the “unromantic” details of her coffeehouse’s decor with delicate words. Spencer was Mom, and as a mother, she provided all that she could. Despite never becoming the next Irving Berlin, to whom she aspired to be while growing up in Milford, Massachusetts, she still drafted the resemblance of a song; created something out of nothing in Caffé Lena, and it continues to linger for others to enjoy.

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